Dr Philip O’Connell and Mrs O’Connell. Courtesy, Cavan County Library.

Recalling some of Cavan’s past history columnists

In this week's Times Past column, historian Jonathan Smyth recalls past historical columnists and the story of one man's 'novel' search to find a wife at a County Home...

While researching I enjoy the rediscovery of history columns from past issues of newspapers. The following column looks back at some of Cavan’s columnists over the years.

In the 1900s, the Rev Robert Leech explored his affection for Cavan’s ancient folklore through his Anglo-Celt column: ‘On the track of the Celt’. The Drumlane rector especially took an interest in West Cavan, played the German flute, and once wrote a lengthy two-part poem for the paper, ‘The rise of McManus’. In November 1898, Leech was horrified to discover locals quarrying stones from the grounds of the nearby Abbey. He expressed his displeasure through the pages of this newspaper, stating that ‘I fairly jumped from my seat’ when first informed that Drumlane Abbey was being carted off to build a cow shed.

From the 1920s, Castletara’s Bridie M. Smith Brady produced a continual supply of fascinating articles on Cavan, its folklore, and ancient past (often covering a field that was much wider), for The Anglo-Celt. A selection of her writings was bound into a scrapbook some years ago by Librarian Sara Cullen and historian Tom Barron, and stored for posterity in Cavan Library.

For thirty years, Bridie remained a ‘valued member’ of the commercial staff at The Anglo-Celt and also contributed to historical journals and the folklore collections held in UCD. According to her obituary in August 1954, she served as an ‘ardent nationalist from her early years’ taking ‘an active part in the fight for freedom in which her activities were many and varied’. Bridie had eclectic interests and could write poetry and short stories, which she published in the Celt at Christmas.

Eamon MacAndries (also known as Eddie Anderson) contributed articles to The Anglo-Celt and the Fermanagh Herald during the 1940s that were highly informative. I remember one in particular where he talked about the McBarron family of West Cavan who were descendants of the historic O’Neills of Tyrone.

In December 1949, the Donegal News caught wind of Eamon’s writing, and wrote that his articles on Kinawley parish were being read with interest in the pages of the Fermanagh Herald, and that he was the son of Andrew Anderson, Kinawley, and had taught in Ahaweena School for six years and in Kinawley for about 32 years. In 2013, his great granddaughter Iona McGoldrick wrote a book on him, called ‘Life and Times of Eddie Anderson’, which was launched during the John Joe Maguire Festival Weekend in Swanlinbar.

Dr Philip O’Connell who came from the townland of Fartagh, in the parish of Lurgan, was a founding member of the Breifne Antiquarian Society in 1920, and its journal editor from 1926. He was a prolific author contributing a stream of articles to newspapers and historical journals for many decades. In 1937 he published ‘The Diocese of Kilmore’, and then ‘The Schools and Scholars of Breifne’, that earned him a Ph.D. from the National University of Ireland. O’Connell’s historical articles were published The Meath Chronicle, and on occasion, he wrote under ‘the pennames’ Viator and Peregrinus. Philip O’Connell died in January 1970.

In The Anglo-Celt of the late 1980s to early 1990s, A.F. (Andy) McEntee’s history column was a favourite in many households where we learned of illicit distilleries, forgotten murder trials and heroics from our county’s past. Andy was a natural born journalist with a sharp wit and a convivial description for everything. In 1992, Andy published a collection of his own favourite columns in a book called ‘Memories of the Lifetime in Journalism’. In his introduction, he tells us: ‘Every town has a past history, be it good, bad or indifferent; and every generation must be curious about what has gone before in his particular area’. (A note for railway buffs … Andy wrote a very fine piece at the time of the closure of the Cavan and Leitrim railway in 1959, which is worth looking up.)

In October 2006, the Cavan Echo, a new free newspaper was launched by an investment group that included ‘local businessman, Declan Young and Peter Quinn, former GAA President. From 2006 until its closure in 2009, Dr Ciaran Parker who holds a Ph.D. in Medieval history from Trinity College, Dublin, wrote the historical column ‘Echoes of the Past’, exploring topics of local curiosity, folklore and archaeology, written with verve and wry observation. In 2008, in conjunction with Virginia-based artist Jim McPartlin, he co-produced ‘County Cavan, Land, Water, Earth and Air’, which was launched to a large audience in Johnston Central Library.


The delicate issue of finding a wife in the 1930s was a matter bravely faced by the men of rural communities, with some venturing regularly to mass, in the hope of meeting 'the one', but others already had a match made for them, and more would emigrate and meet a partner abroad, in England or America. It is said that God loves a trier, and there was no greater a trier than Joseph Melia Ganidan who, in 1935, took the novel approach of writing to the Westmeath County Board, requesting that they find him a good wife.

The letter did in due course come before the County Board and drew an array of responses, the most humorous coming from Peggy Highland, of the County Home, Trim, who wrote a brief report stating that, ‘I think it would simplify matters if there could be a private exchange of photos between Joe and myself, as he could then judge for himself if my features are up to his standard’. She continued, ‘I am agreeable to fall in with Joe’s suggestion as regards the appointment of a sub-committee, with Mr Black as chairman, for I feel certain I will be quite safe in Mr Black’s hands. Even though he and his fellow bachelors on the Board seem to disagree with the Vicar of Wakefield when he mentioned that the man who got married and brought up a family did more for the good of his country than the man who remained single and talked of population’.

Letters poured in from single ladies all over Ireland, and as far away as Tottenham who put themselves forward as a prospective wife. Alas, no minutes survive to say whether Joe found love with Peggy Highland of the County Home.